Poet and artist Bernadette Mayer’s prolific writing on the quotidian, the domestic, and the experience of motherhood has filled the pages of numerous books since the 1960s. Her task- and time-based writing protocols are textual profusions after Gertrude Stein or Marcel Proust—expansive and relentless expressions of her hyper-acute awareness. For the installation Memory (1971), unique in her oeuvre in its combination of text, image, and sound, Mayer shot a roll of thirty-six color exposures every day in July 1971, while also keeping a written diary. Both photographs and text emphatically register her prosaic activities and social encounters in and around New York, from performance rehearsals to car rides on the Taconic. In the months following, Mayer revisited the original diary to write a new text in response to the processed photographs. She generated a third version of the text, editing it from the two others, that she read and recorded on tape, producing a nearly seven-hour soundtrack for the installation.
Memory was first shown in February 1972 at 98 Greene Street, a gallery run by pioneering dealer Holly Solomon. By then Mayer was already a fixture on the downtown scene, having coedited the influential mimeograph journal 0 to 9 with Vito Acconci in the late ’60s. In an April 2016 discussion at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago, where Memory was restaged with new prints from the original slides, Mayer recalled that the 98 Greene Street show was installed with the help of Gordon Matta-Clark. The recent showing of Memory at Canada reflected this original presentation. All 1,116 of the three-by-five-inch photographs hung in a horizontal grid—perfectly scaled to the gallery’s thirty-six-foot-long wall, with fourteen rows of images in a four-foot-tall band. The recording of Mayer reading played continuously. With Memory, as she remarked in 1978, Mayer aimed to move away from the printed book and configure a space that would problematize the position and task of the reader.
Though Memory seems to demand this complete installation, the sheer volume of images, duration of the audio track, and length of the accompanying text make the work difficult to show in full. Partial presentations followed the 1972 exhibition, including in Mayer’s SoHo loft (by appointment only) and in Lucy Lippard’s all-women Conceptual art show, “c. 7,500,” at Smith College Museum of Art. A 1975 publication from North Atlantic Books reproduced an abbreviated version of the text and a handful of black-and-white images on the front and back cover.
The gridded format of the photos in the installation invites viewers to read from left to right to trace each day’s unfolding. And yet, to experience the installation is to drop in and skip around, to follow motifs, clusters, and repetitions, to hover over blurry or indiscernible subjects. Memory produces a sense of the present as technologized, externalized, and distanced. It is perhaps less about memory, in fact, than it is about recording—about experimenting with the conditions of writing under the requirement of constant, daily mediation.
Memory serves as an important contribution to the history of photo-conceptual practices and process-based writing from the early ’70s. Even as it stages the experimental possibilities afforded by the technologizing of various creative processes, the work pushes back against a positivist approach to memory aided by data accumulation that feels all too familiar today. On view after nearly forty-five years in the archives, Memory insists on the importance of the personal from within the logic of the protocol.